Discover the varied delights of fennel. This aromatic herb is a cancer fighter... and an antidote to humdrum menus.
You say you’ve discovered The varied delights of fennel? Don’t be too smug—Greek and Roman health practitioners beat you to it by more than two millennia. This versatile perennial plant, a member of the Umbelliferae family along with carrots, parsley and celery, has a slew of health benefits and a number of culinary uses too.
It’s made up of a white or pale green bulb with hollow-stemmed stalks topped with feathery green leaves near which flowers grow and produce fennel seeds. The bulbs, stalks, leaves and seeds are all edible, but most people eat the bulb as a vegetable, while the seeds are often used for seasonings and supplements. Fennel’s aromatic taste, reminiscent of licorice and anise, is a result of its natural plant compounds. Fennel seeds are munched in India and Pakistan as an after-dinner breath freshener, and fennel—which fleas are said to dislike—has even been used in powdered form to keep stabled horses flea-free.
POWER UP The dried ripe seeds and oil from fennel go into the making of varied medicines, while fennel itself is used as a dietary supplement to treat digestive problems (it fights colic in babies and gas in grown-ups) and upper respiratory infections. Its unique mix of Phytochemicals gives it strong antioxidant activity. A study in the January 2011 Biological and Pharmacological Bulletin suggested that a compound in fennel, anethole, tends to inhibit both the invasive and the multiplicative functions of cancer cells.
Fennel’s also a good source of vitamin c (one cup—just 27 calories!—has 17 percent of the daily value), which can aid the immune system, and of fiber and potassium, which are great for cardiovascular health and can help remove toxins from the colon. Fennel’s glycemic index (a measurement of a food’s effect on blood sugar) is also very low, making it an optimal ingredient in a healthy diet.
DID YOU KNOW? Talk about a hot history—it was with a fennel stalk that the Greek god Prometheus is said to have stolen fire from the gods and given it to humankind. His fellow Greeks called fennel “marathon” and gave that name to a place where it grew in abundance—and a messenger’s famous run from that place gave us our term for organized long runs today. India is by far the world’s leading fennel producer, trailed by Mexico, China and Iran.
BUY/STORE/SERVE fennel can be cut in a variety of sizes and shapes depending upon personal preference, but the best way to do so is to cut vertically through the bulb. You can eat fennel raw or braise or sauté it to serve as a side dish. Its stalks can be used for soups, stocks and stews, the leaves as an herb seasoning. Purchase fennel from autumn to springtime, when it’s readily available at its best. Good-quality fennel will have bulbs that are clean, firm and solid without signs of bruising or splitting. Fresh ones will have a fragrance.
Store fennel in your refrigerator crisper, where it should keep fresh for four days—it loses flavor over time, so be sure to eat it soon after buying. Dried fennel seeds can be stored in a dry location for six months. To buy fennel seed extract for use as a dietary supplement, visit a health-food store. —EMMA DIGIOVINE